There’s little doubt that the tech sector has a large — and growing — impact on the environment. Data centres can be energy hogs; one study forecasts that they’ll account for 33% of global electricity consumption by 2025. Another claims that in the next 10 years they will produce close to five times the CO2 emissions of air travel. Electronic waste is another issue: the United Nations reports that 50 million tons of e-waste are produced each year. And some tech-driven companies enable wasteful practices, such as fast fashion and scores of idling vehicles.
But it isn’t all bad news. A new data centre study has found that while energy consumption is increasing, it’s begun to level off, while computing capacity grew six-fold from 2010 to 2018. And many of the largest providers of cloud services have made commitments to become carbon neutral: Microsoft, for example, has announced that by 2050 it will remove “all of the carbon” that it has emitted since it was founded in 1975. And in February the GSMA announced that 29 mobile operator groups representing 30% of global mobile connections have committed to new Science-Based Targets that include the reduction of emissions by at least 45% by 2030.
Tech companies are also developing new solutions to climate issues: improving efficiency through the use of AI; measuring and monitoring more effectively with IoT; and creating new energy storage and transmission techniques.
Will these activities have a genuine positive impact on the planet? Or is much of this just green-washing?
On the evening of September 15th WiTT assembled a panel of experts and practitioners to address these and other questions and review of some of the latest activities in the sector that aim to reduce its impact on climate change. WiTT board member Yasmeen Majid, Head of Global Network Change at Aviva, chaired our panel. She was joined by:
- Amy Daniell, Director Hyperscale Sales, Global Data Centres EMEA, NTT Ltd.;
- Kimberly Wells, Associate, Bird & Bird;
- Janet Gunter, Outreach Lead, Co-founder, The Restart Project; and
- Kate Rosenshine, Head of Azure Cloud Solution Architecture – Media, Telco & Professional Services at Microsoft.
The discussion took place on Zoom. We will provide a link to the video on our YouTube channel soon.
Here’s a synopsis of the event:
Kate Rosenshine discussed Microsoft’s new announcement on sustainability, in which the company has committed to becoming carbon negative by 2030, and to removing all the carbon that Microsoft has emitted directly or by electrical consumption by 2050. This new commitment reflects ongoing work to live Microsoft’s mission of ensuring the technology it creates benefits everyone on the planet, as well as the planet itself.
Amy Daniell spoke next. She noted that data centers have seen increased attention. The amount of energy the sector uses is published all over the planet; everyone knows this is an issue. There’s also much more awareness among the general public about what a data center is. Amy recently overheard a child talking about Fortnite playing with friends from around the world; it was all going well until the data center had a failure and they lost their game. This young person was very aware of how the game platform was being hosted. He understood that the cloud actually exists.
After a decade of designing and building data centers, Amy has seen a great deal of change. The first data center she was involved in was 500 square meters, which they all thought was huge. She’s now working on a 2,500 square meter center for a single customer’s single deployment. And this isn’t close to the entire deployment for that customer.
Despite the sector’s massive growth, Amy believes its impact on the environment is getting better. Many people have been pushing for improvement. There’s a move to work at a higher set-point temperature (the temperature at which the white space environment operates). Ten to 15 years ago it was roughly 19 degrees Centigrade. Today it’s frequently much higher, at 32C. Google hasn’t put any cooling into its data centers in the Nordic region.
There’s also work being done to use technology rather than people to shift workloads, since it’s well-know that 83% of data center failures are caused by human interaction. Amy spent time with the team involved in the Microsoft submersion project: its failure rate was far lower than that for other data centers. Is that because of a lack of human interaction?
Amy agreed with Kate that transparency will be essential when designing and building data centers. It’s critical to look not just at the data center’s own carbon footprint, sustainability, and environmental impact, but at the entire supply chain and how components are manufactured: are they using good waste water techniques so they don’t have a negative impact on areas of low water; do they get their metals from sustainable sources that don’t create negative environmental impacts. Right now around the world there’s a lack of transparency around how things are manufactured . Until we know how these parts came to be part of our data centers it will be difficult to measure the full environmental footprint with certainty.
NTT’s data center business is being driven by its largest customer — NTT itself — to focus on sustainability goals, think about where where energy comes from; reducing set-point temperatures; using new energy-efficient cooling techniques; and designing data centers that are flexible enough to accommodate new technologies. NTT has a major innovation lab in its London facility where they test new technology that could ultimately be deployed in their data centers.
Amy believes that as an industry we’re raising the bar ourselves for what we’re trying to achieve, rather than waiting for government to push it for us. Many companies are trying to be much better than they have been.
Kimberly Wells offered a case study on electric vehicles as an example of how technology and regulation can drive green innovation.
Today the transport sector in the UK is responsible for approximately 25% of greenhouse gas in UK. The Government’s Net Zero Strategy calls for a move away from diesel, petrol-powered and even hybrid vehicles by 2035. This should go a long way toward decarbonising transport.
But there are a number of questions around whether or not the electric grid has enough capacity to cope with demand. It’s estimated there will be a 30% increase in demand by 2050 if all vehicles are electric. Will there be enough charging points? And how will the network deal with peak demand in the evening?
Today EVs represent less than 5% of all cars on the road. There have been three barriers to mass uptake:
- Costs: EVs tend to be more expensive vehicles;
- Range anxiety: will I reach my destination?
- Experience anxiety: can I find a chargepoint when I need one?
The government has provided funding for green projects; fast charging; “try before you buy” schemes, etc. But the issues with the grid remain a sticking point. There is some talk about using the batteries of electric vehicles to return energy to the grid when it’s not needed by the cars. The government has also experimented with smart charging apps, that enable consumers to control when they charge, and to receive price incentives to charge at off-peak times.
There will also need to be a data access and privacy framework specific to the EV sector. To be eligible for funding, chargepoints must be smart. But that requires that they have access to some personal data about users’ locations and plans.
Overall, while the mass adoption of EV technology will go a long way to de-carbonising the transport system, there are concerns as to whether EVs could potentially create more issues than they solve. (For more reading on this subject, see this PWC report: https://www.pwc.com/us/en/industries/industrial-products/library/electric-vehicles-supply-chain.html)
Our final speaker was Janet Gunter, co-Founder of The Restart Project. Janet considers herself an activist at heart. Restart began as a small charity after Janet and her co-founder worked in Asia, Latin America and Africa t to bring technology into projects to super-charge some of their work. They noticed that in Kenya, Brazil, or less accessible islands in Asia is that people use stuff for longer. They appreciate with they have, and fix it; they’re unlikely to bin it when it fails. There is a culture of repair and using things for longer.
At Davos this year the UN released a report that claims that the world produces 50 million tons of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) a year (you can find that report here:
https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/un-report-time-seize-opportunity-tackle-challenge-e-waste); without action, that will grow to 120 million tonnes by 2050. The Restart Project aims to change this, by reconnecting people with repair and helping them to appreciate the things they have and to use them longer.
Janet told us that in every consumer item we have there’s an embodied carbon footprint. The footprint goes beyond our use of these devices: it’s the water, the raw materials, and the massive impacts of mining on communities. These are largely invisible to us. Frequently when the tech sector talks about its footprint it focuses on usage, such as the energy required to run a data center. Most metrics are around efficiency in use, not about looking at supply chains: what went into the construction of those facilities; what is the embodied impact of that?
Apple was one of the first companies to share product reports; it didn’t necessarily do it consistently, but it estimated each product’s environmental impact. If you look at the carbon footprint of one device, and multiply that by a billion devices, Restart estimates the annual impact of the manufacturing mobile phones is equivalent to the impact of a country the size of the Philippines, with a population of 100 million. If we extend the lifetime of a mobile device by 1/3, that’s the yearly carbon footprint of Ireland.
Since recycling is still playing catch-up, Restart aims to help run things for longer. They offer community repair events to help people learn how to repair things. Some can be fixed. But it’s also clear that a number of products are designed not to be repaired and companies are profiting from this.
Restart has been collecting data at its community sessions; at a three-hour event they’re able to repair about 55% of all of the things that people bring in; 20% has to be thrown away because there’s no way to get into the device or to find a spare part.
This experience led to the creation of three pillars of the right to repair movement:
- design for repair,
- access to documentation and diagnostics and
- access to affordable spare parts.
It can be difficult to figure out how to hold companies to account. Janet believes we regulation and level playing fields. There needs to be change at a system level. She and others are pushing for that here in the US and in Brussels. This also a huge battle in the US.
Restart recently posted a blog that looks in more detail at the tech sector’s impact on the environment; you can find it here: https://therestartproject.org/news/apples-and-amazons/
Following the talks we had a lively Q&A session. Some of the topics included:
- Mobile suppliers encourage consumers to change their devices frequently; what can we do to change this. Often when users ignore suggestions to upgrade they find they can’t get the best rates for mobile services.
- Transparency: we’ve heard a lot about blockchain being used to improve things in this area. Is this something that’s happening in reality? Or is the overall impact negative because of blockchain’s need for processing power?
- On the subject of EVs: How do we find a balance between the need to share and harness data vs the need for privacy protections?
- Why isn’t the government talking about mobility solutions / electrifying public transport, rather than putting so much emphasis on private vehicles?
Clearly this event only scratched the surface of the issue of the tech sector’s impact on our environment. WiTT looks forward to continuing the conversation within our membership and at future events.
And if you’d like to do more reading on this subject or contribute to up cycling, we have the following recommendations:
- The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross writes about The Hidden Costs of Streaming Music: Kyle Devine, in his recent book, “Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music,” explains that, like everything we do on the Internet, streaming and downloading music requires a steady surge of energy: “The environmental cost of music is now greater than at any time during recorded music’s previous eras.” He supports that claim with a chart of his own devising, using data culled from various sources, which suggests that, in 2016, streaming and downloading music generated around a hundred and ninety-four million kilograms of greenhouse-gas emissions—some forty million more than the emissions associated with all music formats in 2000.”
- Facebook and Google’s announcements regarding going carbon neutral.
- A Nesta article on “Building a Greener Internet”
- From 1. Scientific American, “Mining Rare-Earth Elements from Fossilized Fish“
- From Sifted, “Investment into European eco-friendly startups doubles“
- And finally, a Kickstarter project that uses recycled cassette tapes to make art and other objects (the new project is for handbags); the artist is JJ Chuan; her company is rehyphen®.
Head, Global Network Change/Operations
Yasmeen Majid is the most recent addition to the WiTT Board (2017), having been an active member for the past 10+ years. She has spent the past 25 years working with technology-oriented organisations leading significant transformations in several sectors and geographies.
Prior to her current role, Yasmeen lead Vodafone’s Cloud & Hosting Solutions Delivery team, after spending several years as Head of that Division’s Transformation and Business Change. Before that Yasmeen held senior roles in the UK including Chief of Staff to the COO at DLG and the Group CIO at Ladbrokes, Head of Change & Professional Services at Multimap, Head of Operations at Teleca AU-System and COO for a start-up delivering Automated Managed Services. In France, Yasmeen was the Project Director for a major and multi-year back-office system re-write with the American University of Paris and in Canada she started her career with technical roles in Publishing, Telecommunications(Bell Canada), Government(Ministry of Health, Ontario), and management consulting(KPMG).
Yasmeen holds a B.Sc. in Computer Science from McMaster University, Canada, and an MBA from EDHEC-Theseus, France.
Director Hyperscale Sales, Global Data Centres EMEA
With nearly a decade in the industry, Amy spent the early part of her career delivering data centre builds for industry leading clients such as Dell, IBM, Ericsson and Vodafone. She then joined AECOM in early 2014 to drive mission critical engineering across EMEA and APAC. Her unique insight drove AECOM to become an industry thought-leader and partner of choice for many global corporations and smaller niche data centre operators. Amy has no joined NTT as Director in the Hyperscale team to continue NTT’s successful relationships and delivery for many of the household names in the Data Centre industry.
Outreach Lead, Co-founder
The Restart Project
Janet is an American/British activist, anthropologist who has lived and worked in Brazil, East Timor, Portugal and Mozambique. She has lived in Brixton, south London, for 10 years and feels at home there.
Head of Azure Cloud Solution Architecture – Media, Telco & Professional Services
Kate is the Head of Azure Cloud Solution Architecture for Media, Telco and Professional Services at Microsoft UK, working with customers to architect end to end solutions, using Microsoft cloud technologies, with an emphasis on creating solutions that leverage data by using AI.
A behavioural neurobiologist by training, she is passionate about the intersection between technology and business, and how new technologies can shape organisations as they evolve.
Bird & Bird
I’m an experienced technology and communications lawyer, advising on complex, strategic technology and communications projects for clients operating in a variety of sectors.
My expertise and interest lies in advising businesses being transformed or disrupted by technology.
Since joining the firm in 2012, I have advised on a range of technology and communications projects from network infrastructure arrangements to technology transformation projects. I work with clients (ranging from start-ups to multi-nationals) operating in a variety of sectors, including aviation, financial services, media, retail, technology and telecommunications.
I work closely with my clients’ legal, IS and procurement teams at each stage of the project lifecycle, from initial tender and vendor selection through to contract conclusion and beyond, including contract operation, change and exit.
I support my clients not only with core legal advice, but also with more strategic thinking. This ensures that I am aligned with my clients’ goals and longer term strategy, which has resulted in a series of rewarding, long term working relationships which is one of the most rewarding aspects of my role.
In addition to complex large scale projects, I have over ten years’ experience in advising on software licensing, development and support agreements, SaaS and cloud based arrangements, framework agreements, IP licences and collaboration agreements and network services arrangements (such as capacity and dark fibre agreements).
I am an active member of the firm’s technology and communications sector group and participate in industry led events so that I am positioned to offer insight to my clients on the opportunities and challenges presented by emerging and disruptive technologies. I regularly present on legal and commercial issues arising from technologies such as AI, 5G and the IoT. I really enjoy working in such an innovative and forward looking field.
During my career, I have worked on secondment including 6 months supporting a major technology separation and integration project. I have also spent over a year on secondment to an Australian firm, where I advised on a range of technology and communications projects, including relating to Australia’s national broadband rollout.